Arizona Republic: Fiesta Bowl Report: Trouble May Lurk for Arizona Officials

By Ginger Rough, The Arizona Republic

State law says legislators cannot accept free tickets

Arizona lawmakers who accepted tickets from Fiesta Bowl lobbyists to attend football games in Chicago, Boston, Pasadena and other cities may have violated state law.

Since 2000, state statutes have included an "entertainment ban" that prohibits state employees and elected officials from accepting tickets or "admission to any sporting or cultural event" for free.

The law includes an exception allowing lawmakers to attend "special events" if broad categories of lawmakers, such as the entire Arizona Senate, or a committee, were invited. However, a 276-page investigative report into the Fiesta Bowl's financial, political and lobbying activities, and interviews with lawmakers themselves, suggest that that loophole may not apply to out-of-state games attended by legislators in recent years.

The report says Fiesta Bowl employees went on at least seven trips with politicians in recent years and lists more than a dozen former and current state lawmakers, including Sen. President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who joined lobbyists and bowl representatives for football weekends in Chicago and Boston.

The Fiesta Bowl spent $18,454 on the October 2005 Chicago trip and more than $65,000 on the October 2008 Boston trip.

Many lawmakers who went also took spouses, children or other family members on the junkets, which included stays at the Ritz-Carlton or other pricey hotels.

It is unclear from the Fiesta Bowl's internal investigative report whether lawmakers received free game tickets as part of those excursions. Fiesta Bowl records contain no evidence that any lawmaker reimbursed the airfare, hotel costs or other expenses from those junkets. If they did get free tickets, that would seem to violate state statutes.

The Fiesta Bowl investigative report clearly states, however, that Fiesta Bowl employees paid for and were reimbursed for non-Fiesta Bowl tickets given to Pearce in 2007 and 2008.

The September 2007 tickets for the Navy/Air Force matchup were valued at $2,140. The September 2008 tickets to the University of Southern California/Ohio State matchup were valued at $4,060, the report said.

Lawmakers are required to report any single gift or accumulated gifts in excess of $500 or more in personal financial-disclosure statements. However, in many cases they did not appear to properly follow those reporting rules.

Pearce, for example, stated on a financial-disclosure statement covering May 2007 through May 2008 that he received a gift from the Insight Bowl. But more recent reports do not list any such line items. Pearce's older reports were not immediately available for inspection, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

Pearce did not respond to multiple requests for comment Wednesday.

In another example cited in the bowl report, state Rep. Ben Arredondo, a Democrat and former Tempe City Council member, received Super Bowl tickets in January 2009 valued at more than $4,000 and attended an Air Force/University of Minnesota game at the Fiesta Bowl's expense in summer 2009. Arredondo was serving on the Tempe council at the time he accepted the gifts; he was elected to the House in November.

Arredondo did not disclose the gifts on his financial-disclosure statements.

He also declined to comment.

State Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, who joined the Fiesta Bowl's 2008 Boston junket with his daughter, on Wednesday called himself a "moron" for participating.

Crandall said he was approached about it by Fiesta Bowl lobbyists as a freshman lawmaker. He said he was told that junkets were "tradition" and that the bowl annually asked a select group of lawmakers to participate. Crandall said he asked "if it was legal" and was told that it was because the organization took "several" lawmakers and that it was "not an individual gift to anyone."

"Looking back now, what a naive, first-term lawmaker move," Crandall said of his decision to attend.

However, state Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, who went on both the 2005 and 2008 trips defended her participation, saying Wednesday that she felt it was important to show support for the bowl.

"The Fiesta Bowl is a huge economic engine for this community and for the state of Arizona," said Lopez, who added that she was told she would have to pay for her game-day ticket.

But Lopez added that had she known about the other Fiesta Bowl activities detailed in the recently released report, she "probably would not have gone."

Other trip attendees, among them state Sen. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, declined to comment. But Meza did stop by the Secretary of State's Office on Wednesday afternoon to amend his personal financial-disclosure reports, said Matt Roberts, a secretary-of-state spokesman.

Chuck Coughlin, whose firm HighGround lobbied on behalf of the Fiesta Bowl, said trip participants from both political parties were selected based on their support of the Fiesta Bowl and the bowl's legislative priorities and plans, among other criteria.

"The bowl has always received tremendous bipartisan support because of all the great works they do throughout the state," Coughlin said. "We were always conscientious of making sure that Republicans and Democrats who had expressed support for the bowl were acknowledged, either with thank-you notes, personal thank-yous and briefings, or, in the case where there were competitive campaigns, with contributions."

The Fiesta Bowl report documented a scheme to improperly reimburse Fiesta Bowl employees for more than $46,000 in campaign donations to 23 candidates since 2002. However, there was no indication that politicians who received the donations knew of the reimbursements, the report said.

Coughlin said he also was unaware of the practice. "I had no knowledge of that," he said. "I never knew about it."

In recent years, the Arizona Legislature has considered more than half a dozen pieces of legislation that have or could have affected the Fiesta Bowl. The most significant was House Bill 2035, a 2005 measure amended the Fiesta Bowl's use agreement at what is now University of Phoenix Stadium, essentially carving out a spot for a national-championship game.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said Wednesday that no one had filed a complaint regarding lawmakers' relationships with the Fiesta Bowl and that there are no plans to investigate.

"We probably need to let it shake out a bit more and see if someone files a complaint," Gould said.

The original article can be viewed here.